NEW YORK — At approximately 2:50 p.m. in courtroom 26B inside the Daniel Patrick Moynihan federal courthouse, juror No. 3 read aloud seven counts of guilty against three men who will go down in college sports infamy.
Guilty of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Guilty of conspiracy to commit wire fraud against the University of Louisville. Guilty of conspiracy to commit wire fraud against the University of Kansas.
Jim Gatto, Merl Code and Christian Dawkins stood, turned slightly to the right and faced all 12 jurors as their fates became public knowledge and officially went on the record. They didn’t flinch; their facial expressions stoic but strong. The courtroom, filling to near-capacity and populated more in that moment than at any since the opening two days of the trial, remained silent with the exception of the judge’s clerk and juror No. 3 exchanging a reality that rocked college basketball and set a precedent in federal court that will be debated about for months if not years.
The sweep of seven guilty verdicts landed heavily within the courtroom and subsequently rung out in every direction outside of it, pinging college basketball and major college athletics across the United States. This stands to be a watershed case. (And remember, we still have two more cases scheduled — with four college basketball assistants on trial — in 2019.)
A veteran defense group, which didn’t call a witness and declined to put Gatto, Dawkins or Code on the stand, failed to win out vs. a team of young prosecutors, led by Ted Diskant, out of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York.
“As an athlete you want to compete,” Merl Code Sr., who played college football in the 1960s, told me on Tuesday as we chatted in the foyer outside the courtroom. “But you’ve never faced an opponent this big.”
Code Sr. was a state judge in South Carolina for 25 years. In July, he left the bench for good. He became obsessed with this case, waking up in the middle of the night to scribble down notes in an effort to make sure his son went free. He stressed, as any parent would, and dedicated his time to overcoming a juggernaut.
The opponent was too big.
Dejected, Code Sr. and his son declined comment as they left the courthouse in the cool October air.
Lewis A. Kaplan, the silver-haired honorary judge who’s overseen multi-million-dollar hedge fund fraud trials that easily put this one to shame, commended the jury on its diligence in coming to a unanimous decision.
“I certainly appreciate the seriousness in which you took your job,” Kaplan told the eight women and four men to his left. “You’re entitled a great deal of credit for that.”
The essence of this case ultimately probably rested on this credo: The more you know about the NCAA and college basketball, the less likely you are to believe a federal crime happened here. Due to a jury comprised of people not familiar with the complicated worlds of the NCAA and college basketball, the federal government’s burden proved not nearly as heavy as most made it out to be when this case broke in the fall of 2017.
In the 2 1/2 days prior to the verdict, Gatto, Code and Dawkins, and their families and lawyers, were hopeful. On Wednesday morning they sat at different tables, on the eighth floor in the courthouse’s public cafeteria, and exchanged quiet laughs and smiles as they awaited word on a verdict that would change their lives. Everyone seemed loose; a jury continuing to deliberate could signal serious doubt over the prosecution’s arguments.
That was the hope, anyway.
On Tuesday, I happened to ride the elevator up with Dawkins as we made our way back to the courtroom. He carried with him two books: A Curious Mind by Brian Grazer and The Operator by Robert O’Neill. Dawkins, cleanly dressed in an asphalt-gray suit and sporting thick-rimmed glasses, was anxious to get the proceedings over with.
“There’s nothing else we could’ve done,” he said of his the defense team’s arguments to get acquittals. “Obviously we weren’t trying to defraud anybody.”
That’s the general understanding of almost everyone who works in, covers or seriously follows college athletics. The coaches and programs want to get to the best players possible. Sometimes, in doing that, rules are broken — often by those not officially affiliated with the schools. Anyone who’s been in the sport long enough knows that’s how the game is sometimes played. It gets played dirty.
Obviously we weren’t trying to defraud anybody.
Obvious to many — but erroneous to the two groups that mattered most: the federal government and the jury. The government won, as it so often does, by convincing the jury thanks to mountain ranges of flashy evidence that included clandestine wiretaps, revealing text messages and even the occasional damning video capture. It won because it convinced the jury that schools really were victims and, by default, that Rick Pitino and Bill Self — and employees at those schools — were none the wiser to the nefarious black market that was feeding their programs in the process.
Almost no one involve in college basketball actually believes this. A jury of 12 did, though, and now its decision will have serious reverberations in college athletics and — hello, this is even bigger — interpretation of federal law going forward.
This was never a whodunnit. We knew who did it. The perpetrators were caught. Maybe that doomed the defendants from the jump. An admission of wrongdoing is not an advantageous starting point. But was it really breaking federal law to pay a kid to steer him to a certain school, unquestionably helping that school in myriad ways in the process?
The government sets the table for the NCAA, which in time will almost certainly act aggressively. And that is what could make for huge headlines, and maybe even the loss of jobs, in the months ahead.
The NCAA’s idea of amateurism won out on Wednesday. That’s a bad thing for college athletics. In providing guilty verdicts, the jury made it that much easier for the NCAA to use what was uncovered in this trial for its own means of punishment against many of the schools that were brought up. Not just Louisville and Kansas. There’s also potential pitfalls (or worse) for schools like DePaul, NC State, Arizona, Maryland, Duke and more.
Because even if some those schools were judged to be defrauded, the illegal activity around them still must be accounted for on an NCAA level. Mark Emmert, who strangely never showed for this trial, will demand justice within his organization. The likelihood of that is exponentially greater than what expectations once were on getting a guilty verdict in this trial.
Four programs are still directly in the crosshairs. Former assistants at Arizona, USC, Oklahoma State and Auburn are facing bribery charges. Who’s to say if Wednesday’s verdicts will affect any plea deals going forward, but it’s obviously not an encouraging sign that the minor players in this scheme were ruled in the wrong.
Getting the coaches has always been the larger objective.
The schools are far from off the hook. By definition, the verdicts prove true four of the most feared words in college compliance: lack of institutional control. Coincidentally, Kansas put Silvio De Sousa, whose illegal recruitment was laid bare in this trial, out of action indefinitely — and maybe for the rest of his college career.
College athletics wasn’t so much exposed as it was undeniably altered on Wednesday. The government’s 1-0 with two more cases looking, at this moment, even more probable to land in their favor. Keep that in mind. The NCAA sure will. The college hoops coaches facing prison time have every right to feel a lot more nervous.
And so does everyone even remotely touched by this case.
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